Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea

by Owen James Burke

Reprinted from OCTOPUS!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea by Katherine Harmon Courage with permission of Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Katherine Harmon Courage, 2013.

octopus

By Katherine Harmon Courage, from Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea

The light is filtering in from above. It’s quiet except for the sound of my own breathing. Something bright catches my eye. I look left and spot two shockingly yellow fish. But as I’m admiring them, I suddenly realize—too late—that I’m being pulled by an unseen force to the right toward a big rock. I try to reverse course, but I bash my knee on an outcropping of coral that I hadn’t seen below, causing a cut that aches for days to come.

Even down here, on a calm March morning in the shallows of the Caribbean, the ocean is a chaotic place—one utterly unlike the one we’re used to ashore.

Just a couple of brief snorkeling expeditions in Puerto Rico to look for octopuses were all I needed to realize just how poorly equipped we are to keep up with these animals. Getting familiar with a subject and its hunting practices requires a challenging attempt to understand how they sense their world. For example, with a little effort—and a lot of patience—we might be able to spot an octopus out on the prowl in its natural environment. But that same landscape is going to look and feel and sound very different to the hunting octopus.

In this strange world, however, the octopus is a cunning and able predator. Unlike other bottom dwellers, such as the lobster, the octopus makes sure most of its meals are caught live. Using advanced vision and exquisite touch and tasting abilities, the octopus is a formidable foe for would-be prey. With strong arms and a toxic bite, it can feast on some of the toughest-to-shuck bivalves. So focused on food are they that some will even venture out onto land to find a meal.

But to learn more about how the real animals capture prey, one must visit their world to look for them—if only to observe. And so I soon found myself on a half-dead coral reef in Puerto Rico, on the hunt for octopuses.

***

 Roy Armstrong spotted it first. A pristinely clean clam shell lying near an outcropping of coral. “An octopus is nearby,” he proclaims as we both surface and take out our snorkels. We go back down for a closer look. Armstrong expertly dives down and peers into all the perfect hiding spots, and I circle around, checking the surfaces of the coral, rocks, and substrate. I try to recall all of the octopus camouflage videos I had seen, but swimming down here in the Caribbean, with all of the brightly colored fan coral, tropical fish, and menacing urchins, it actually seems like a three-pound octopus should be easy enough to spot.

Or not. I should have remembered Roger Hanlon’s words from the previous autumn in Woods Hole: “You can’t go out on a reef and expect to find an octopus,” he had said. “That’s nonsense—I’ve done it wrong so many times, I just know it’s nonsense.”

I, however, had taken no heed and travel down to the southern coast of Puerto Rico in pursuit of these clever hunters. I arrive in the sleepy fishing town of La Parguera, where Armstrong has helped Hanlon and others find local octopods. But first, to find Armstrong you must drive all the way through little La Parguera until you come to the end of the road. Turn, and keep going until that road ends. You’ll find yourself in a dirt parking lot. At the end of the lot, a botero, a man in a small boat, will be waiting to shuttle you across a narrow chute of water to Magueyes Island. If you pick your way over the small island’s massive, lounging iguanas (the many descendants that survived from the island’s previous iteration as a zoo), you’ll find Armstrong in his impeccable office, perched on a yoga ball, wearing Birkenstocks, and pouring over satellite images.

Armstrong takes his university boat out for a water-sampling cruise several times a month. And having been in La Parguera “forever,” as he puts it, he is intimately familiar with the reefs and their nooks and crannies (so much so that he corrects his boat’s course for errors and omissions he knows are in the GPS maps). His shaggy brown hair, slightly crooked teeth, well-worn short-sleeved cotton shirt, and calm demeanor might lead you to think he’s a laid-back beach-bum type.

He’s not. He’s an exacting scientist who will spend upward of ten minutes finding the perfect spot to anchor his boat.

We meet early one day as the chickens of La Parguera are still cooing into the clear March morning air. He gathers our snorkeling gear and patiently fixes the sputtering outboard motors. And we are off to hunt for octopuses. It’s a world away from the rough seas faced by the Spanish fishermen—at least today.

The breeze picks up when we reach our first snorkeling stop, near a reef called Media Luna. There are tons of fish swimming everywhere (big yellow snappers, schoolmasters, and blue tangs) and black urchins lurking in crevasses. But I don’t see a lot of promising octopus chow.

We pick up anchor and move on to the next spot, Cayo Enrique. After a few minutes, Armstrong swims over to get my attention to show me the freshly cleaned clam shell. “There was an octopus around here somewhere for sure,” he says. But even with our thorough search, no cigar. (Although it’s likely that there was an octopus there—and that it was keenly aware of our presence.)

Our third attempt, near a mangrove forest, didn’t even yield any evidence. And another windy afternoon search off the northern coast by San Juan with Josh Rosenthal from the University of Puerto Rico the next day turns up even fewer clues.

Stumped though we were, our search tactics were not misguided. As Mike Henley, a keeper at the National Zoo, told me, when he goes out diving for coral research, he keeps an eye out for “Ringo’s garden” as he calls it—any suspicious concentration of discards. The octopus’s garden is often actually a graveyard of shells. These collections of carnage can help divers spot octopuses. They can also help researchers figure out what octopuses eat.

Judging from the piles of discarded shells that can accumulate in front of a den, the octopus is not a very picky eater. Some individual octopuses have been known to eat dozens of different species of prey, and others might just be limited by what’s available in their area. Some species do, however, seem to turn their noses up at a meal that another octopus would snatch up in an instant. And some members of the same species, living in the same area will occasionally select different diets. (Humans are not usually on the menu, although Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea—and probably plenty of childhood nightmares—does feature a villain-killing octopus.)

Katherine Harmon Courage is a contributing editor for Scientific American, where she writes the Octopus Chronicles blog. Her work also appears in WIRED, Popular Science, Nature, Gourmet and this year’s The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. Her first book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is just out from Penguin/Current. Follow her on Twitter @KHCourage or find more of her work at www.katherinecourage.com. 

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